WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials said Tuesday that more than 65,000 Minnesotans will be cut off or become ineligible for unemployment benefits unless Congress acts in the next two weeks to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed.
Roughly 8,500 will be kicked off right away when the current program expires on Dec. 28, and another 57,000 who would qualify for the program next year would be out of luck.
Nationwide, the number who would lose out is 4.9 million, with 1.3 million cut off immediately -- one third of the total receiving unemployment checks across the county right now.
"These extended benefit programs provide critical relief to families and they also stimulate the economy during a time when stimulus is critical," U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told reporters. "If Congress doesn't act before Dec. 28, 1.3 million people will receive a lump of coal in their stockings."
The emergency benefits, which kick in after the 26 weeks of state benefits run out, have been in place since George W. Bush signed them into law in 2008, and they have been extended multiple times.
But Republicans are opposed to extending them this time, saying they have already cost too much and the program has been far more generous – lasting 10 weeks longer -- than the last time the federal government offered extra benefits following the 2001 recession and terrorist attacks.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner hasn't ruled it out entirely, but he has said Democrats need to focus on creating more jobs instead.
"That's where the focus is, not more government programs," he said last week.
But Perez and White House economist Betsey Stevenson asserted Tuesday that it is still too soon to cut off the long-term unemployed. They say that previous emergency aid programs were not allowed to expire until the unemployment rate was closer to 5 percent or 6 percent.
The unemployment rate dropped in November to 7 percent nationwide, a five-year low. The rate is currently 4.8 percent in Minnesota. Some 5 percent are unemployed in St. Cloud, while the rate is 4.7 percent in Sherburne County, 5 percent in Benton County and 4.6 percent in Stearns County.
Hopes for an extension of the benefits are not high in Congress. Versions of a measure that would extend them for one year have been introduced in both the House and the Senate but have not moved further.
Both Minnesota Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar fired off a letter to Senate leadership Friday arguing for an extension, saying the benefits are a "critical component of our ongoing recovery and a lifeline to millions of Americans as they search for work in this challenging economy."
Franken said Tuesday that it's "not the time to put the brakes on our recovery."
"There are still too many unemployed workers, and long-term unemployment is still high," he said. "Extending emergency unemployment benefits is critical for workers in Minnesota and throughout the country who are struggling to find jobs and support their families."